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Control in the History of Computing: Making an Ambiguous Concept Useful
July-September 2011 (vol. 33 no. 3)
pp. 88, 86-87
Gustav Sjoblom, Chalmers University of Technology

Computing and control are deeply intertwined. As a theory and practice of engineering, control was a main impetus for the emergence of modern computing in the 1940s. With its broad connotations of mastery and steering, control seems intuitively applicable to many of computers' uses. With versatility, however, comes ambiguity. The concept has been applied to a range of disparate phenomena, at different levels of abstraction. This article gives seven definitions of control and shows that the theme and the diversity of control is relevant to the social history of computing. However, historians of computing should be careful to distinguish between literal and metaphorical use and between different aspects of control.

1. I owe a lot of the inspiration for this piece to my colleagues in the project "Precursors of the IT Nation: Computer Use and Control in Swedish Society, 1955–1985:" Isabelle Dussauge, Johan Gribbe, Arne Kaijser, Per Lundin, Julia Peralta, and Björn Thodenius.
2. D.A Mindell, Between Human and Machine: Feedback, Control, and Computing before Cybernetics, Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2002.
3. M.R. Levin, "Contexts of Control," Cultures of Control, M.R. Levin ed, Harwood Academic, 2000, pp. 13–39.
4. , In a current research project on computer use in Sweden, we abandoned control as a central analytical concept, partly owing to the difficulties of finding an appropriate translation. I. Dussauge et al., "Precursors of the IT Nation: Computers and Control in Sweden, 1955–1985," to be published in History of Nordic Computing 3: Proc. 3rd IFIP WG 9.7 Conf. (HiNC 3), J. Impagliazzo, P. Lundin, and A. Sölvberg eds., Springer, 2011. See also S. Gerovitch, "Striving for 'Optimal Control': Soviet Cybernetics as a 'Science of Government,'" Cultures of Control, M.R. Levin ed., Harwood Academic, 2000, pp. 247–264, 252.
5. Definition according to the Oxford English Dictionary Online,
6. Levin, "Contexts of Control," p. 25.
7. Mindell, , Between Human and Machine, p. 316.
8. N. Wiener, The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society, Houghton Mifflin, 1950.
9. For example, J.R. Beniger, The Control Revolution: Technological and Economic Origins of the Information Society, Harvard Univ. Press, 1986, pp. 7–8.
10. For example, P.N. Edwards, The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America, MIT Press, 1996.
11. J. Yates, Control Through Communication: The Rise of System in American Management, Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1989.
12. D. Otley, J. Broadbent, and A. Berry, "Research in Management Control: An Overview of its Development," British J. Management, vol. 6, Dec. 1995, pp. 31–44; L.A. Samuelson, Organizational Governance and Control: A Summary of Research in the Swedish Society, Stockholm School of Economics, EFI, 2005, p. 12.
13. This applies to R.N. Anthony, J. Dearden, and R.F. Vancil, Management Control Systems: Cases and Readings, 1st ed., Irwin, 1965, as well as R.N. Anthony, and V. Govindarajan, Management Control Systems, 12th ed., McGraw Hill, 2007.
14. For example, H. Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century, Monthly Rev. Press, 1974, and J. Annerstedt et al., Datorer och Politik: Studier i en Ny Tekniks Politiska Effekter på det Svenska Samhället, [Computers and Policy: Studies in the Effects of a New Technology on Swedish Society], Cavefors, 1970.
15. Levin, "Contexts of control," p. 22.
16. D.F. Noble, Forces of Production: A Social History of Industrial Automation, Knopf, 1984, p. 57.
17. G. Deleuze, "Postscript on the Societies of Control," October, vol. 59, Winter 1992, pp. 3–7, and M. Foucault et al., The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1991.
18. S. Zuboff, , In the Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power, Heinemann Professional, 1988, chapts. 9–11.
19. R. Guins, Edited Clean Version. Technology and the Culture of Control, Univ. of Minnesota Press, 2009, p. 3.
20. For use, see J. Yates, Structuring the Information Age: Life Insurance and Technology in the Twentieth Century, Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2005, and P. Lundin, "Documenting the Use of Computers in Swedish Society Between 1950 and 1980: Final Report on the Project 'From Computing Machines to IT,'" KTH, 2009. For applications, see J.W. Cortada, The Digital Hand: How Computers Changed the Work of American Manufacturing, Transportation, and Retail Industries, Oxford Univ. Press, 2004. For software, see N. Ensmenger, The Computer Boys Take Over: Computers, Programmers, and the Politics of Technical Expertise, MIT Press, 2010, pp. 5–15.

Index Terms:
History of computing, control
Gustav Sjoblom, "Control in the History of Computing: Making an Ambiguous Concept Useful," IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, vol. 33, no. 3, pp. 88, 86-87, July-Sept. 2011, doi:10.1109/MAHC.2011.53
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